'Tis Winter: Critters Take Cover

As we start to feel the cold wind in our faces of old man winter’s breath, we get out the coats, turn on the furnace and inevitably complain about the cold, snow, ice, etc. We even think of our pets, putting them in a coat, bringing the inside, and getting an extra blanket. But what about creatures in the wild?  Specifically those that live in stream, lakes, ponds and rivers that have the potential to freeze? Aquatic organisms have come up with several adjustments to meet these challenges.

Deer Creek at Emmerling Park

Deer Creek at Emmerling Park

Fish and other cold-blooded animals adjust their body temperature and modify their behavior according to the season by adjusting their metabolism to the environment they live in. While agile and quick in warmer water, they slow down as their body temperatures drop. Some species of fish known as cold-water species, like trout, perch, and salmon prefer the colder temperatures, as colder water has more oxygen, but they will still move pretty slowly when water temperatures drop below 40oF. Other fish species, known as warm-water fish, such as bass, bluegill and catfish, must hibernate.  They retreat to the edges of streams and bury themselves in mud or leaves to wait out winter’s wrath.  Some species have been known to come back to life after being frozen!

Fish aren’t the only organisms in our streams though, macroinvertebrate or stream insects have some unique adaptations to survive the winter.  Like many of our warm-water fishes, aquatic macroinvertebrates will burrow into the mud, leaves or other stream substrate until spring.  Many insects can also secrete a fluid similar to antifreeze to survive the cold. 


Other organisms in water? Snails become very inactive in winter. Those present in water that freezes solid, burrow into mud and plant debris to hibernate. Mussels become dormant, too. This is evident from the darker rest rings on their shells, sometimes called “growth rings.” Most frogs hibernate in the mud below the ice, though some survive the winter in their tadpole stage. Many turtles also burrow into the mud and become inactive during the colder months. Snapping turtles, on the other hand, settle beneath plant debris and logs or even stay in muskrat or beaver burrows. Both snapping and painted turtles become active sometimes and can be seen crawling around under the ice. Cold-blooded toads, water snakes and garter snakes head under decaying logs, in stone piles, burrows or other holes and hibernate.



Mining for Volunteers

Attracting and retaining volunteers takes work. All volunteer supported organizations struggle with this. However, your group stands to increase success through a commitment to recruiting and utilizing multiple promotional pathways. 


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First thing is first: Social Media

A growing majority of people find their information online. Having an up to date events page like Facebook will open up a world of opportunity. Not only can people view your page directly, but others can repost it to expand its reach. At the very least, maintain a Facebook and Instagram account. Without a doubt, your group needs social media and a social media manager to recruit volunteers. This is a great role for someone in your group who has the interest and know how. Check out our Social Media Guide for more tips on managing social media.


Meet Up Groups

Consider establishing a Meet Up Group. You may catch people who are new to the area looking for ways to connect, meet new people, get outside, etc.


 Post Flyers

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This is a great opportunity for someone with a design eye in your group to put together an attractive flyer. Free templates are also available. Your audience is watershed- wide, which means you can take advantage of posting in businesses like Starbucks, grocery stores, libraries, community buildings, parks, etc. in multiple communities. Keep a list of potential places to post, places that have allowed you to post in the past, and places where each member can ask if it is allowed. By keeping a record of locations, your group can easily revisit these locations in the future. 



The Print


Write your area papers to promote events and board meetings. Ask your municipality to publish your information in their quarterly newsletter or local TV channel. This is a great way to include your municipalities in your work. If you have a larger event planned or want to showcase your group’s work, consider writing the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review. It is great to develop contacts at media outlets when possible. 


Schools + Groups

Teachers are often looking for external opportunities for their students and students may need community service work for college resumes. Start with developing contacts with environmentally focused clubs and courses, or start where you already have a connection. Serviced-based organizations like the Boy Scouts can also help with hands-on projects.

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Host a Meet and Greet Event

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Drum up interest and recognition for your group by hosting a fun meet and greet event. Create a connection with people by hosting a food/drink driven activity, like meeting at a brewery or having a picnic at a park with field games. Give an introduction of your group by sharing your goals and upcoming opportunities for people to get involved. Provide informational materials on your group and how to get involved.


Keep Track and Develop a Master Contact List

A big part of maintaining relationships with all of the above is organized and up to date record keeping. Know where can post flyers, who you can contact with a story, connections with schools and groups to make it easier to promote your next initiative. Always have sign in sheets at your events to allow for follow-up contact.

One of your group's goals should be to develop a comprehensive contact list for direct emails. Volunteer participation will wax and wane, but your group will experience more success through the above pathways and volunteer care, which will be discussed in an upcoming blog.

Better Know a Watershed: Montour Run

In 2016, the Allegheny County Conservation District (ACCD) received a Growing Greener Grant from the Pennsylvania DEP to assess the Montour Run Watershed and develop a Watershed Plan for future treatment and maintenance. This is a grant geared toward “address[ing] Pennsylvania's critical environmental concerns of the 21st century,” including cleaning up abandoned mines and the affected watersheds.  As it would happen, in February 2018, the Montour Run watershed began experiencing elevated levels of abandoned mine drainage (AMD). With this grant, the watershed team has been able to collect data on water quality and macroinvertebrate populations, and begin assessing the damage caused by the AMD.

November 2017 Collection

November 2017 Collection

In November 2017, the ACCD Watershed Specialist collected 8 bottom-of-the-stream samples to search through for macros, and then collected samples from the same stream sites 6 months later in May 2018. With the help of a Student Conservation Association Sustainability Fellow, 3,597 organisms were found in those 16 samples! These 16 samples will serve as the baseline data for further macroinvertebrate collections. Although the diversity seems high in both the November and the May samples, it is hard to glean much information from these samples because we have no previous data on population sizes or diversity of these organisms.

Big ol' dragon fly larva. A good sign. 

Big ol' dragon fly larva. A good sign. 

These macroinvertebrates will be affected by the AMD in the streams. The remaining questions? How much will they be affected and in what ways? Will the populations of some organisms decrease, while others increase? It’s possible! Some, like black fly larvae and certain clams, can survive in very polluted waters, but others (think stonefly and mayfly) can only survive in clean waters. Is it also possible that all populations will decrease? Unfortunately, that’s also a yes if the stream is too polluted to sustain life. More assessment is needed.

So can we do anything about it right now? Well, first we need to find out how much water quality and populations are being impacted, and what specifically is doing the “impacting.” After that, remediation tactics can be installed, but those take time and money! The best way to help in the short term is to not make the problem worse. Try planting trees and shrubs along the banks, don’t dump anything down storm drains (remember, it drains right to the streams!), or join your local watershed group to help them make an impact.


For information on getting involved in the Montour Run Watershed, contact president@mrwa.info. The Montour Run Watershed Association always welcomes more support. 

E. Wise, SCA Sustainability Fellow